Natalie Haynes

A perversion of the Classics

White supremacists are now appropriating Classical authors to lend authority to their vicious world view. Donna Zuckerberg is determined to fight back

A perversion of the Classics
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Not All Dead White Men: Classics and Misogyny in the Digital Age

Donna Zuckerberg

Harvard, pp. 270, £

Who could possibly take exception to the Stoics? One of the more passive arms of Hellenistic philosophy, Stoicism required its followers to believe in a world where virtue was all, worldly goods were trivial and everything was predetermined. Perhaps you might take exception to this last pillar of faith, since it leaves us dangerously close to being organic robots, with no real autonomy. ‘I was destined to steal,’ a slave once told his Stoic master, Zeno of Citium. ‘Yes, and to be flogged,’ Zeno replied, carrying out the punishment. Your destiny does not excuse you of responsibility, in the Stoic mindset: it just robs you of choice.

With its emphasis on virtue and self-control, it is curious that Stoicism has proved so appealing to the men who lurk on the internet under the banner of the Red Pill (an umbrella term taken from the film, The Matrix, which now describes multiple varieties of men’s rights activists, pick-up artists and ‘incels’ or involuntary celibates). These are men who go out of their way to bully, deride and harass women on a daily basis (Elliot Rodger, who killed six people in a spree shooting in Isla Vista in 2014, called himself an incel, and wished to punish women for failing to have sex with him).

Donna Zuckerberg is a classicist with a strong internet pedigree: she set up the excellent website Eidolon, which publishes essays on Classics in the contemporary world. She is also — as she explains on the second page of her book— Silicon Valley royalty:

Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook (and my older brother) is frequently mocked as ‘Mark Cuckerberg’... epithets based on the term cuck, a particularly significant form of insult within the Red Pill, derived from the term cuckold.

So she is ideally placed to analyse the deeply unpleasant phenomenon of these men appropriating ancient authors — Ovid, Seneca, Marcus Aurelius — to try to bolster their vicious world view. One author she quotes finds himself unduly exercised by the notion of a white woman having sex with a non-white man, because some Red Pill zealots consider that women’s reproductive organs belong to ‘the males in her society’. Zuckerberg must have a strong stomach to spend as much time as she clearly does researching these people.

The men who dwell in these dark corners of the internet are drawn to the ancient world because they see a patriarchy which they believe reflects a continuous natural order of things. And while the societies of imperial Rome and classical Athens were indeed oppressive to women (adult women needed a male guardian to transact business, for example), they weren’t terrifically good for many men either. Just like their sisters, young Roman men were subject to parental authority: they also couldn’t possess property in their own right and the paterfamilias held power of life and death, although this weakened over time.

Zuckerberg astutely observes that ‘this illusion of continuity is actually an ideologically motivated strategy to resurrect ancient norms in the present day’. Only by ignoring (or refusing to acknowledge) the elements of the ancient world which don’t fit their blinkered view do these men manage to twist the classical world into an inspirational force for themselves. Indeed, Mary Beard (among others) has suggested that ‘we probably don’t need to worry too much about these alt-right guys hijacking Classics if they make such a mess of it. We just need to keep pointing out the howlers’. Zuckerberg disagrees, and this book is her attempt to document this appropriation of Classics by people who neither know nor care how limited their understanding is.

Her goal is to raise the question of whether classicists should be worried about these men and their sudden fondness for Ovid. It’s hard to know who else her book is aimed at: by her own admission, she has described only selected lowlights of misogyny in the ancient world, and it reads a great deal like a PhD thesis, filleted of its most academic elements for broader appeal.

But Zuckerberg is right. Ignoring these people is no longer the answer. If we don’t engage, we end up with farcical cases, as happened recently when the alt-Right became enraged by a BBC cartoon featuring brown-skinned people in Roman Britain: isotope evidence shows that around 20 per cent of Roman Britons were long-distance migrants. It isn’t enough for only classicists to know these statistics.

Marcus Aurelius would doubtless have disputed this conclusion: ‘That men of a certain type should behave as they do is inevitable. To wish otherwise is to wish the fig tree would not yield its juice.’ But that is why Stoicism is such an ultimately unsatisfying world view. It’s better to fight ignorance than surrender to it.